College girls: Why they outnumber boys

A while ago, my nephew asked me to take a look at his college admissions essay. He was a brilliant, interesting kid with superb grades and boards– a kid who in the past could've sneezed on an essay form and gotten into the college of his choice. So I looked.

The essay was good, really good, but just at the point where the reader would need to know his emotions, he pulled his punches and ended.

"This is a great start," I told him. "But we need to know more about your personal feelings, your own reactions." He thanked me but took the copy back as if he were holding a live grenade. I realized: What was I, insane? I just asked a teenage boy to not only get in touch with his feelings but to express them... to others. And not just to others, to strangers with the power to determine his future. I might as well have asked the caveman hunter to expose his genitals to a rival.

The U.S. Department of Education has announced that there are now more girls than boys in college; it has estimated that by the year 2008, females on campuses will out number males by almost three million. All kinds of theories have been put forth to explain this growing discrepancy: Girls are more mature, more focused, better students; boys think being academic makes them wimpy– or are opting to forgo college for computer training– or they find the classroom environment hostile.

Blah, blah, blah.

Forget all that. I know why the girls have overtaken the guys: It's the essay, the touchy-feely, open-a-vein-and-bleed college entrance essay. The college entrance essay counts for more and more these days. As Rob Jackson, associate director of admissions at Yale, told me, "The essay isn't as important as test scores, grades, and curriculum– but it's a major factor. We look very carefully at them."

Now if I had told a teenage girl to give me more insight, I would've gotten it in spades. I'm reminded of when I used to write articles for teen magazines. I'd interview the girls, and they would tell me anything I needed to know– more than I needed to know! Would you shut up already, do you realize this is for publication, for God's sake? Do you really want other people knowing about this? Can we check with your mother that it's okay that this is printed, please?

Then I would interview the boys. Here is an actual transcript:

Me: Did that make you mad? Sad?

Him: I dunno. Mad. I guess. Not really. I dunno. Sorta.

Me: Do you like it when girls take the initiative and ask you out?

Him: Yeah. I guess.

Me: Can you give me an example?

Him: Not really.

The worm has finally turned! Feminism has finally triumphed, and we didn't even realize it! All those years we women have been held back because we were too emotional, too weepy, too verbose– now they're the very characteristics that are getting us into Harvard ahead of Joe Strong-And-Silent.

Those inarticulate boys have been caught flatfooted; the girls, on the other hand, have to worry only about packing everything they have to say into the space allotted. Joe might still be silent, but he isn't all that strong any more. Inside, he's a quivering mass of essay-avoiding protoplasm, thinking, "Oh, please don't ask me to tell you how I feel, please don't make me reveal something completely dorky about myself."

Of course, being a prototypical female socialized from birth to be more empathic than males, I feel for the poor guys, and I can't help but want to help. (After all, I'm the mother of a future teen male myself.) Here are my suggestions: You want to get your son into the school of his choice? You want to help him ace the essay? Start working now on teaching him how to reflect, how to dig deep, how to share his issues.

He needs to learn how to be comfortable revealing deeply-felt emotions– other than anger at someone who ate all the Pringles. He needs to be able to express finely honed details from past traumas or moments of enlightenment in 500 words.

Easier said than done? My idea is to desensitize him to overt displays of emotion so that he'll be comfortable with them. Here are some suggestions on how to get the ball rolling. (And if the following sounds vicious and inhumane, remember: In the future, wars will no longer be won on the proverbial playing fields of Eton but in late-night bull sessions in the dorm.)

1. Force your teenage son to watch videotapes of Kathy Lee Gifford crying. Don't let him get up until he can watch for more than a minute without laughing, squirming, or having reflux. Then make him discuss her pain. Spray Cheese-Whiz directly into his mouth if he can work the word "enabler" into the conversation.

2. Show him pictures of his birth. Grab him in close, point and yell, "There! There! See that? It's your head, crowning!"

3. Make him join in the slam session at his sister's next slumber party.

4. Ask him if he thinks your jeans make you look fat. Reward him with an Xbox if he can refrain from fleeing the room. Throw in new cartridges if he can actually form a coherent sentence in response.

5. Call up his girlfriend and tell her he really, really wants to talk about their relationship. Could she come over right now?

If anything, these tactics will yield a very powerful, harrowing essay on his abusive childhood, instantly elevating him above the pack of typical, boring, inarticulate middle-class boys.

Don't thank me. I'm not totally selfless here. I have to admit I do feel a small frisson of delight at the male species' discomfiture over all the bloodletting inherent in writing college essays. When I sent my poor nephew back to the torturous rack of self-examination, he said, half in jest, half in utter disgust, "Me no write good." I had to bite my tongue from asking, "Yes, but how does that make you feel?"

Beth Levine is a writer whose essays have appeared in Redbook, Woman's Day, Family Circle, the Chicago Tribune, USA Weekend and Newsday. This one first appeared in the Stamford Advocate.


In 2003-2004, according to the latest statistics provided at UVA's "Statistics & Facts" website, the full-time undergraduate enrollment of 12,790 was 54% women.